Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Putin's Prokhorov Challenge

The unfolding political drama in Russia took another unexpected turn on Monday as billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov threw his hat in the ring as a challenger to Vladimir Putin in next March's presidential elections.  His announcement came after an unusual series of Kremlin-sanctioned political protest rallies took place this weekend, with the largest in Moscow drawing a crowd officially estimated at 25,000.  Prokhorov is apparently hoping that he can ride a wave of political dissent rippling across Russia over elections last weekend that are widely believed to have been fixed in the Kremlin's favor. “I made a decision, probably the most serious decision in my life: I am going to the presidential election,” Prokhorov said at a news conference on Monday to announce his independent bid for the presidency.

In fact, the timing of his announcement was so good that some are wondering if Prokhorov isn't just a stalking horse candidate for Kremlin critics- a safe outlet for disaffected voters that won't challenge the established leadership.  Adding fuel to this theory are the statements over the weekend by one top Kremlin insider who said that Russia needed a new liberal party to serve the mostly urban protesters attending rallies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia.

But I think that there are two factors going against this argument.  The first is that there really is no need for a stalking horse-type candidate to ensure an electoral victory for Putin.  While some Russians may be angry, and many more just fed up with the ongoing Age of Putin, none of the three opposition parties in the Duma (the Russian parliament) have anyone to offer up as a candidate with the popularity (albeit damaged popularity) or stature of Putin, meaning that for as much of a pounding as his image has taken in the past week, Vladimir Putin is still odds-on favorite to win the election in March.

Second, even if the Kremlin was going to try to offer up a straw man candidate, Prokhorov is a fairly poor choice since he was already burned politically by the Kremlin just earlier this year.  In May, Prokhorov took leadership of the party Pravoye Dyelo, a name which is alternately translated as Just Cause or Right Cause.  Prokhorov's new party was to be more populist-minded with a pro-business/anti-corruption platform that managed to steer clear of any cutting criticism of either Putin or current President Dmitry Medvedev – a delicate maneuver that left Right Cause open to charges that it was simply another Kremlin-approved opposition party in the mold of A Just Russia (in fact, much of Right Cause's platform seemed to echo the economic reform ideas being pushed by Medvedev earlier this year.  In May, Prokhorov boasted that Right Cause would become the second largest party in the Duma (behind the ruling United Russia of course) following December's elections. 

But Prokhorov seems to have taken his role as leader of Right Cause a little too seriously for some in the Kremlin.  In September, a secret Congress (so secret Prokhorov didn't know about it) was held among some of Right Cause's leaders and Prokhorov was voted out of his leadership role, a move Prokhorov blamed on Vladislav Surkov, a presidential deputy chief of staff, who serves a role for Putin much the same that Karl Rove did for President George W. Bush, and a man who Prokhorov blasted following the secret vote as: “a puppeteer in the country who has long privatized the political system.”  Prokhorov kept a low profile following his ouster from Right Cause, but stated on Monday that he had been planning and putting together the machinery needed to gather the two million ballot signatures required to get his name on the March presidential ballot.

There appears then to be some genuine animosity between Prokhorov and the Putin machine, so it would seem unlikely that he would then secretly be working with them on an ultimately unnecessary political maneuver.  What's more plausible is that Prokhorov, an aggressive businessman who at just age 46 has amassed a fortune in the billions, sees an opening and is planning to take it in terms of Putin's now-waning popularity, and if it is a chance to get back at Putin, whose associate Surkov publicly humiliated him in the Right Cause affair, all the better. 

With his declaration, comparisons are now rightly being drawn between Prokhorov and the last oligarch who challenged Putin publicly and politically, the former head of the Yukos oil conglomerate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is currently languishing in a prison cell in Russia's Far East on some dubious tax evasion charges.  But there is an interesting difference between the two men: in his book on the  Khodorkovsky affair, Putin's Oil, author Martin Sixsmith describes how Khodorkovsky publicly sparred with Putin in the months leading up to his arrest in 2003.  In the weeks before his arrest, Khodorkovsky was urged by friends to follow the lead of other oligarchs who had gotten on the wrong side of Putin and go into self-imposed exile outside of Russia.  But Khodorkovsky instead feverishly tried to negotiate a merger between Yukos and Exxon, his belief was that forming a business alliance with a major Western corporation would provide him with protection against Putin (in Russian the term is krysha, literally: roof) who would not want to damage Russia's image as a place to do business by arresting the head of a multinational corporation on politically-motivated charges.   Khodorkovsky ultimately wasn't able to complete the merger and wound up being arrested as he had feared.

For his part, Prokhorov has the Western business connections Khodorkovsky lacked; among Prokhorov's other holdings are the NBA's New Jersey Nets.  Prokhorov then seems ready to test the Khodorkovsky theorem, how Putin, and the Russian voters, respond will be interesting to see.
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